It’s one of those words whose meaning is dependent on context.
If I tell you I’ve made a new connection with a colleague at work, you’ll probably ask me what his name is and how I came to meet him. If you call me on the phone and I remark that the connection is bad, you might blame it on the lack of a nearby cell phone tower.
Methodists have another use for that term, though. We refer to “the Connection” as a synonym for “the Church.”
Speaking about Methodism as a connectional movement goes all the way back to John Wesley. He referred to the group of preachers who were “in connexion” with himself, meaning that they were engaged in a common mission under his recognized leadership.
That sense of unity remained at the heart of the connectional idea after Wesley’s death, when leadership moved from Wesley the individual to the conference itself. American Methodism developed a multi-layered system of conferences. Methodist preachers became identified with the annual conferences where their membership was held, but from the year 1792 all the various annual conferences began to gather in a General Conference that met (and continues to meet) once every four years. The General Conference is the fullest expression of our connection, and it alone has the authority to speak for the whole Church.
I have found both pastors and laypeople who think of the connectional nature of the Church primarily in terms of apportionments and other obligations to Methodist commitments beyond the local congregation. When we think of the connection as the thing that allows “them” to tell “us” what to do, resentment can build quickly.
The true heart of the Methodist connection is much different than that. Connectionalism means that we do not see ourselves operating as independent congregations (or pastors). We are engaged in common work. The local church is the most significant arena for making disciples (cf. Book of Discipline, Par. 120), but the local church is fundamentally connected to the whole Church’s mission and ministry. Common cause is essential—in doctrine, discipline and spirit.
Connectionalism is therefore the foundation of the entire Methodist conception of the Church. Our Book of Discipline refers to the connection as a “vital web of interactive relationships” (Par. 132) and describes each local congregation as “a connectional society of persons who have been baptized, have professed their faith in Christ, and have assumed the vows of membership in the United Methodist Church” (Par. 203). It is only because each of those congregations exists as part of a broader connection that the entire United Methodist Church can make a common witness to the world.
We can better understand our connectional nature if we contrast it with a popular alternative: congregationalism. In a congregational church, the highest level of authority is the local congregation itself.
Congregationalism teaches that a local church stands alone. It is not beholden to any authority greater than itself. According to this view, the congregation is the fullest expression of what the body of Christ is meant to be.
More than once in recent years, we have been witness to new church starts in the UMC that have broken away from the connection to organize themselves as independent congregations. That’s a tragic occurrence—and it shows how deeply we need the connectional identity to be planted and nurtured in the hearts of both pastors and their congregations. As a seminary professor, it is a reminder to me of the need for me to explain to my students the fundamentally connectional nature of Methodism.
There’s another “C” word related to connection that also figures prominently in the Bible. It can help us grasp what we mean by connectionalism. That word is “Covenant.”
A covenant is an agreement or pact of mutual trust, entered into by two or more parties who commit to abiding by the terms of their relationship and who pursue certain goods together by virtue of that commitment.
Covenants are contracts, in a certain sense. In a Christian framework, we would say that a covenant is a contract that is formed and maintained by steadfast love. This is the character of God’s relationship with us, as modeled in Scripture. It is also intended to be the character of each baptized Christian’s relationship within the body of the Church.
Methodists employ the idea of covenant when they speak of their connection. We are called into the covenant relationship of the connection. That’s the case for all members of the United Methodist Church—both laity and clergy. Our Discipline explains this feature of the Church: “United Methodists throughout the world are bound together in a connectional covenant in which we support and hold each other accountable for faithful discipleship and mission” (Par. 125).
The ordained elders and deacons of the Church have a special responsibility to our connectional life. Our ministers pursue their ministries in covenant with the whole Church, and they also live in covenant with one another to uphold one another “in covenant of mutual care and accountability” (Par. 303.3). The Discipline links the vitality of the Church itself with this aspect of ordination: “The effectiveness of the Church in mission depends on these covenantal commitments to the ministry of all Christians and the ordained ministry of the Church” (Par. 303.4).
We live in a time when the connection is under a great deal of strain, by forces both inside and outside the Church. We can endure this period of trial and perhaps come out of it stronger than we were before. But it will require all of us to recommit ourselves to our connectional covenant. If we find ourselves unable to abide within that covenant, on the other hand, then the very integrity of the connection itself will fly apart at the seams.
This article originally appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s April 4, 2014 edition. Reprinted with permission. You can read the article in its original form at this link.